Comprehending an author's ideas is sometimes a difficult task, requiring focus and patience. Some writers express their ideas with great clarity, making the job of reading pleasurable and easy. Others, including theological scholars, can be more difficult to understand.
This difficulty increases when reading older English and when reading a subject that involves unfamiliar terminology.
While pre-reading allows you to skim over an author’s more difficult passages and notice only basic ideas and patterns, deep reading does not make use of these shortcuts.
The following steps will walk you through a focused and careful reading:
- Choose a good location to read. Reading in-depth is time-consuming and requires your full attention. Sit down in a quiet library desk or a comfortable chair where you can avoid distractions and interruptions.
- Use a pencil, pen, or highlighter to make marks and notes as you read. Making notes to yourself as you read can greatly increase your engagement with a text. Underlining, asterisks, and other marks can help identify important words, sentences, or paragraphs for later reference. Even marks like exclamation points and question marks can identify an idea that is especially striking or that needs further consideration.
- Approach each chapter and section independently. When reading expository prose (e.g. theology, biblical commentaries, philosophy, etc.), you will encounter many distinct ideas and arguments. An author usually discusses these ideas in the separate sections of a work, and it is advisable to study each section independently. After studying the various components, you will be better equipped to judge how well they fit together to form a cohesive whole.
- Identify key words and phrases to clarify the specific idea that is being addressed. Good writers use concrete, specific language to communicate their ideas. Good readers must therefore pay attention to the specific words chosen by an author in order to avoid misunderstanding what is being said. If an author uses technical terminology, it may be necessary to use a dictionary or internet search to learn the meaning of these terms.
- Phrase the author’s topic in terms of a question. The topic Van Til introduces in the paragraph below is the relationship between systematic theology and apologetics, so the natural question this paragraph provokes is, “How should these two disciplines be related?” An additional question might be “Where does Van Til agree or disagree with the two schools he mentions?”
- Keep questions like these in your mind as you read. Allow your natural inquisitiveness to guide your thoughts as you observe how the author answers the question. Does the author provide a well-reasoned, complete, and satisfying answer?
- Identify and mark the sentences that are most central to the author’s argument. Then use these major sentences to rearticulate the author’s basic ideas for yourself. After you have used the author’s key terms to clarify the topic, use these words to identify the major sentences in which the author develops the argument.
- Look for statements that have a broad, general character and that relate directly to the author’s topic. These sentences articulate the author’s core thoughts about a topic and are different from supporting sentences, which provide additional details or supporting arguments. As you mark these important sentences, you will identify the major elements of the author’s argument.
- Discuss your reading with a friend, fellow student, or professor. The insight of others is an excellent resource for evaluating your comprehension of a piece of writing. Have others understood your passage to mean what you think it means? Can others clarify points that are confusing to you?
An Example of Using Key Words
The first paragraphs of a major section or chapter of a book should introduce an author’s key words and phrases. Consider this paragraph from Cornelius Van Til’s Introduction to Systematic Theology:
About the matter of theological encyclopedia there has been a great deal of debate among Reformed theologians. There is only one point in this debate that we are here concerned to mention. That is the question of the relation of systematic theology to apologetics. On this point Dr. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, and with him the “Princeton school” of theology, differ from Dr. Abraham Kuyper and Dr. Herman Bavinck and the “Dutch school” of theology. (Van Til 1972, 2)
The reader may not be aware that “theological encyclopedia” is a technical term for the various theological sub-disciplines. Likewise, a beginning student may not understand precisely what is meant by “systematic theology” or “apologetics.” This information could be learned from a dictionary or from reading further in Van Til’s discussion.
Nevertheless, a reader lacking this technical knowledge should notice that Van Til is focusing on “only one point,” “the relation” between two disciplines. An engaged reader might underline the key word “relation” and put a question mark next to “theological encyclopedia” or “apologetics” to indicate the need for further information. Thus a careful, engaged reading of the first paragraph gives the reader an idea of the direction the author will take.
An Example of Finding the Author's Topic Sentences
Consider the following paragraphs from Van Til, continued from the previous example:
We cannot and need not discuss this debate [between Warfield and Kuyper concerning the relation between systematic theology and apologetics] in detail. Kuyper’s basic contention that we must always keep in mind the distinction between the regenerate and the unregenerate mind need not imply that apologetics must come after systematics and must be negative only. Apologetics can very well come first and presuppose in general the system of truth brought out in systematics. It is true that the best apologetics can be given only when the system of truth is well known. But it is also true that the system of truth is not well known except it be seen in its opposition to error. Systematic theology itself has been developed, to a large extent, in opposition to error. The two disciplines are therefore mutually dependent upon one another.
On the other hand, we hold that the basic contention of Kuyper with respect to Warfield’s position is correct. Warfield often argues as though apologetics must use a method of approach to the natural man that the other disciplines need not and cannot use. He reasons as though apologetics can establish the truth of Christianity as a whole by a method other than that of the other disciplines because it alone does not presuppose God. The other disciplines must wait, as it were, till apologetics has done its work, and receive from it the facts of God’s existence, etc. This distinction between the method of apologetics and the method of the other disciplines we believe to be mistaken. All the disciplines must presuppose God, but at the same time presupposition is the best proof. Apologetics takes particular pains to show that such is the case. This is its chief task. But in so doing it is no more neutral in its method than are the other disciplines. One of its main purposes is to show that neutrality is impossible and that no one, as a matter of fact, is neutral. We conclude then that apologetics stands at the outer edge of the circle of systematic truth given us by systematics in order to defend it. (Van Til 1972, 3)
The notes in the margin map out Van Til’s discussion, while his main sentences are underlined. These sentences summarize his views, showing that Van Til agrees with Kuyper over against Warfield regarding apologetic methodology. With regard to the relation of theology and apologetics, Van Til concludes that apologetics is grounded in systematic theology, which is itself apologetic in character, the two disciplines sharing the same methodological presuppositions.
The inquisitive reader may have many legitimate questions at this point. What is “the distinction between the regenerate and the unregenerate mind”? What does Van Til mean by “presupposition is the best proof”? Unfortunately, these questions cannot be answered from this excerpt or from the immediate context.
Written originally as a course syllabus, this piece of Van Til’s writing presupposes a level of familiarity with the author’s ideas that not all readers share. This is an instance, therefore, in which background acquaintance with the author, his assumptions, and his context is essential to full understanding of the text (see Pre-Reading).
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